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Beware the Brits’ stealth referendum! – Towards Indyref2…

Beware the Brits’ stealth referendum!

“Using lower preferences for other parties under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good.”

Surely that should read,

“Using lower preferences for other PRO-INDEPENDENCE parties (OPIP) under the local council voting system : Risk-free, can only do good.”

Voting for ANY unionist party can only do harm. Especially now that Theresa May has openly declared the British establishment’s intention to present the local election results as a plebiscite on whether there should be a fresh independence referendum.

To vote for ANY unionist party or candidate – irrespective of that candidate’s personal views on independence – is to support the British nationalist campaign to deny our right of self-determination. And it’s not only about seats won or councils controlled. Theresa May’s intention to make this a plebiscite on giving her the right to overrule our elected government and parliament means that every single vote matters, regardless of its effect on the outcome.

It is important to stress this because there are Yes groups out there seeking to persuade people that it is OK to vote for unionist parties. It must be clearly understood that voting for unionist parties is NOT and CANNOT EVER BE compatible with the aims of the independence movement.

I will always defer to James Kelly in matters psephological and the sometimes baffling intricacies of our proportional electoral systems. But I would suggest the following as the default voting strategy for those who wish to defend Scotland’s democratic right to choose how we wish to be governed, and/or those who aspire to the restoration of Scotland’s rightful constitutional status.

(1) Highest preferences: SNP
(2) Lower preferences: OPIPs

EDIT: I am grateful to Rolfe for his response on on the Scot Goes Pop site pointing out something I had not considered. This short quote is, I think, self-explanatory.

Once you’ve ranked all the pro-independence candidates, go on down the list. I know it’s a bit of a thought to put any mark at all against Labour or the LibDems, but by ranking them above the Conservatives you can do your bit to minimise the number of Tory councillors. And in doing that there is NO CHANCE AT ALL that you will disadvantage any of the candidates you already ranked higher.

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21 thoughts on “Beware the Brits’ stealth referendum!

  1. Morag

    Hi Peter. Thank you for taking the time to appreciate the point I was making.

    I understand what you were trying to say, but it’s wrong. Indeed, Theresa May wants to turn this into some sort of surrogate independence referendum, but giving lower preferences to candidates standing for unionist parties can’t possibly assist her in that as I think you were trying to imply.

    When all the counting is done, there will be only two things to consider as regards which side (indy or unionist) “won”. One will be actual votes, but all that will be counted there will be first preferences. If your first preference is for an SNP candidate then your vote will go in the indy pile irrespective of how or even whether you’ve ranked the other candidates. The other will be seats won by the various parties. If by your use of your lower preferences you succeed in getting a LibDem into your local council rather than a Tory, that again isn’t going to change the reckoning at all. You’ve just swapped one unionist for another.

    My point is this. The way the votes are counted it’s possible that our later preferences may have more influence than we realise. This, incidentally, is why SNP canvassers are all trying very hard to persuade voters committed to non-SNP candidates to give the SNP candidate a ranking somewhere down the line. It’s interesting just how many ballots are dropped in the later rounds of the transfers simply because the voters didn’t express lower preferences. Looking at the figures, these people could very easily have changed who got the last seat to be allocated if they’d gone on to 3-4-5.

    So, you give all the pro-independence candidates your highest rankings, that’s obvious. But once you’ve done that, there’s no conceivable harm you can do by ranking the unionists. Your raw vote will be placed in the indy pile by your SNP-1 choice, and you’ve done all you can to get pro-independence candidates elected. You can do no more on that front.

    But imagine, at the fag-end of the transfers. The last seat in your ward is up for grabs. It’s between a Tory and a LibDem. Do you really, really not care who gets it? I do. I know that the SNP councillors would much prefer working with a LibDem to a Tory. I know that LibDem councillors are less likely to hammer services and squeeze the poor. And most of all, I know that if the numbers work out we might have an SNP/LibDem coalition running the council, with the Tories in opposition. If they don’t work out we’ll have a Tory-run council.

    The SNP have said they will not go into coalition with the Tories. So if the Tories get that extra seat, it could well scupper the chance of the SNP being in administration in the council. If the LibDems get it, things might be very different. You can re-jig this for different councils with different make-ups but the point is the same. If you let a Tory get that last seat because you couldn’t bring yourself to give any unionist party candidate a ranking, you may be scuppering the chance of your own party forming a coalition to run the council. Conversely, if you rank non-Tories above the Tory you may deprive the Tories of the last seat and indeed of the chance to run the council.

    1. Morag

      I suppose I missed the final point. If by facilitating the election of a LibDem councillor (or I suppose even Labour, it would depend on the region) rather than a Tory, lower preference votes of SNP supporters then made it possible for the SNP to form coalition administrations rather than the Tories getting in, this is a final way whereby May’s little plan might actually be thwarted.

      Yes, they’ll add up individual votes, and if your first preference is SNP your vote will be on the indy pile, so that’s OK. Nobody will care at that point what you did with your lower preferences. They’ll add up the number of elected councillors for each “side”, and getting a LibDem in instead of a Tory isn’t going to make any difference to that either. But third, they’ll add up THE NUMBER OF COUNCILS WON by each party.

      Minimising the number of Tories elected minimises the number of councils the Tories will control at the end of the day. If you’ve done that by ranking a LibDem over a Tory, you’ve done a good thing. If instead of a Tory-controlled council you end up with an SNP/LibDem coalition, as well as being a huge positive for local services, it will weigh at least partly on the right side in May’s “stealth referendum”.

      It’s a fascinating paradox!

      1. Richard Shearer

        Can I ask a question – what do we do about those candidates who describe themselves as independent. I know one in my area who calls himself an independent but is definitely a Tory (voted with the Tories all the time).
        Will local activists let us know who the closet Unionists are, and if so how will this be arranged?

    2. Peter A Bell

      You’re input is much appreciated. There is a problem, I think, with devising a voting strategy that is both simple enough to be communicated easily to voters and detailed enough to take account of the inherent complexities.

      Perhaps the solution may lie in the approach adopted when presenting information on websites. The most effective way of doing this is to structure the information at different levels. Something simple and eye-catching at the top level which suffices for most purposes whilst encouraging the audience to go to the next level and a more detailed explanation. A third level is an option, but only if really necessary. In practice, the third level move to ‘related topics’.

      It’s good that this discussion is taking place. I am hopeful that something constructive will come out of it.

      1. Conrad Hughes

        There is a strategy, and it is pretty simple: use all your preferences. Put a number beside *everyone* on the ballot: 1 to your favourite, then 2, 3, 4 until you hit your least-liked.

        That’s all.

        I can point you at academic papers proving that it’s almost impossible to “game” this vote, so the best you can do is make sure that, for as long as the election calculations continue, your vote is in there in every round, counting against your least-liked candidate. And the way to do that is to put your least-liked candidate last, behind everyone else.

        Use all your preferences.

        1. Conrad Hughes

          To add unneeded detail:

          1) Technically I’m pretty sure that you don’t need to put a mark beside your least liked of *all* the candidates. That final preference can only be used when everyone else has been either elected or eliminated, which means that this candidate will be deemed elected anyway. So if you really can’t bear putting a mark by that last name, just make sure you’ve put a number beside everyone else.

          2) On the academic side, “Single transferable vote resists strategic voting” by Bartholdi shows that it’s very hard in the worst-case to manipulate STV; There are a selection of papers which find it easier than worst case in practice, but they tend to be looking for any manipulation (i.e. just proving that *someone* can change the result, but not in a particular preferred direction), be for tiny elections (e.g. 10 voters), be based on perfect knowledge of how everyone else votes, or other such impractical restrictions. Coordinating a coalition to perform a manipulation is also hard, and failure might involve electing someone much worse than you intended. Etc.

          1. Morag

            Peter, Conrad is so right. And Cadogan Enright and Vestas below. It’s a well-understood system and we have to listen to the people who have experience and data on it. Our SNP branch had a meeting with a PowerPoint last month, and one of the really important things that came out of it was how much influence the ballots of people who went right down the list could have in the later stages.

            We don’t need a discussion so much as informed input from people who have the experience, both with previous council elections and in Northern Ireland. The way the NI election went on Friday should have been a huge warning sign for the importance of your ballot still being in play right till the bitter end.

            Even if all you do is deny a Tory a seat by giving it to a LibDem, it’s worth it. And there is no conceivable harm you can do.

  2. John Docherty

    Me I am mister average ,give me a simple explanation to what is a complex system,
    1 vote,SNP ? 2 vote ? , 3 vote ???. If you present clear information to ordinary voters ,who support Independence ,before they place pen to paper,this will help to avoid confusion within our membership ? I do not wish to tell people who or what to vote for mearly advising people,of the pitfalls of a cross in the wrong box ,
    Win the local elections,then we will win our Referendum ,

    1. Morag

      Simple. Just number all the candidates in your order of preference, with 1 being your favourite, going all the way to the bottom.

      If there is more than one SNP candidate, number both/all at the top (1,2 or 1,2,3). If your local party activists have asked you to put these candidates in a particular order, do that, because they ask that for a good reason.

      Then choose any other pro-independence candidates in your order of preference.

      (If you’re a Green, by all means put the Green first, above the SNP candidates, but we’re assuming the majority of independence supporters are SNP.)

      Then look at the remainder. Do what you like with any independents based on what you know about the candidates personally. But the main thought is, which party do I want least of in my council. Which party do I want to get fewest councillors overall?

      If that’s the Tories, just make sure that whatever you do you rank the Tories bottom.

      If every independence supporter does this, we can make a significant dent in the number of Tories elected across Scotland, and that will not make Mrs May very happy so I say we do it. If we bow out of making that choice, more Tories will get in.

      We don’t have the luxury of saying we hate all unionist parties equally. We kind of don’t. I’d far rather have a LibDem than a Tory in my ward.

  3. Cadogan Enright


    I have been managing elections with STV for 35 years in Ireland

    After you have exhausted all Indy options, keep going with the nastiest Yoons right down at the bottom

    If there are 11 candidates in a 5 seat constituency – keep voting 1 to 11. It can be hard to decide betweeen 8, 9, 10, 11 and you will be hoping your preferences dont have to go that far as INDY candidates will win all 5 seats – but that cannot happen in reality – so think of the worst case scenario – pick your best team in the 5-seater, then pick their worst team after that

    1. manandboy

      Cadogan, please clarify what ‘ then pick their worst team after that’ means.

      Starting at 6, the options are 2 Labour,
      2 Tory and 2 lib dem.
      Please list them 6 – 11 as you would have them.


      1. Vestas

        Who has control over the council now & which set of yoons do you hate worst?

        Cadogan is suggesting you list the more incompetent yoons above their more competent mate.

        So (for example) if you have labour in charge of your council & you want them out you’d probably go :


        for your bottom preferences. Make sure you rank their less popular candidate (2) above their number 1 candidate. That way (as its councils) they might end up with a chancer who never turns up to meetings & voters get pissed off with them.

        You can have lots and lots of fun because the thing about the system for Scottish council elections is that its virtually impossible to game PROVIDED people fill in all their preferences.

        If they don’t and its a 4 seat constituency (they’re all 3-4 aren’t they?) then I can see a lot of tories sneaking in even though they were outside the first 4 on voting round 1.

        You should also note that reducing the number of seats in a given area HEAVILY favours larger parties under all STV systems. During the Irish civil war the govt of the time reduced the number of seats from (IIRC) 9 to 5 in districts to get their own people in.

        Clearly we need an urgent education drive amongst indy voters regarding council elections and how to vote otherwise we might not get Glasgow. Lets be honest – that’s the target this time.

    2. grizebard

      I defer to your experience, Cadogan, but there is no way I’m going to put in any preference for a Tory candidate, nor for a Labour one here in Glasgow. Same goes for any pro-indy supporter here who wants to deny Theresa her supposed mandate for no-indyref, and there is no way I want to enable a resumption of Labour’s little Stalinist fiefdom.

      But your (and others’) general point of keeping your preferences in play for as long as possible is a sound one. So any LibDem eg. might just get a last-ditch squeeze-in to my list.

      1. Morag

        I don’t know about Glasgow, but there is some merit in thinking whether you really really want the Labour party out as thoroughly as possible and to do that you’re prepared to accept a few more Tories, or whether denying the Tories as much as possible in the context of May’s “stealth referendum” is better.

        I know it’s hard to rank any of them, but you really do have a chance of influencing which of these two outcomes you get.

  4. Vestas

    Sorry Peter but you’re way wrong on this one.

    With ALL STV systems you want to keep your vote in play for as long as possible. You can only do this by indicating a preference for all the candidates. As Scotland (and NI/Eire) use a fractional transfer system for distributing second/further preference votes then by the time you get to round 4 or 5 then its tiny fractions of a vote you will be passing on. Put the yoons right at the bottom of your list.

    There are also going to be instances where all your preferred candidates have been elected/eliminated and voting rounds continue. In these instances then its best to put the incumbent yoon party last and the yoon party most likely to beat them slightly above to maximise the chance of the incumbent losing overall control of the council.

    This isn’t a “get the most councillors” election, its “get the most councils” & (for example) if putting LibDem above Labour in your preferences (but still at the bottom of the list) gets a LibDem elected in Glasgow when otherwise it’d be Labour then that’s a result.

    What you’re saying is “I don’t care which yoon gets in” when you really should care as you might be able to influence it.

    The chances are that by the time you get to round 4/5 of voting then the yoon will either have been elected or eliminated. However why take the chance?

    STV (using WIGM as the trasfer algorithm) is nothing like d’Hondt. Its pretty much un-gameable which is why NI has been using it since 1973.

    1. Vestas

      Further reading should anyone find it useful :


      Its a PDF written by James Gilmour giving a detailed description of EXACTLY how the STV system in Scotland works.

      1. Vestas

        …and a “Janet & John” version, which is only accurate for a council by-election and not the full election :


        For the full election Gilmours description is how it works – and why its computerised (BTW the program doing the calculations was audited by a Dutch uni, just in case someone is about to call foul)….

        1. Morag

          Very well explained, Vestas. Here we have SNP and LibDems in coalition in administration with a Tory opposition. I want to maximise the chance of keeping it that way even though the Tories have grabbed a lot of previous LibDem voters. I don’t want the Tories in administration. I know that the third seat in our ward is going to be between the LibDem and the second string Tory. So I make sure to rank the LibDem above both Tories. I then rank the second-string one above the first just to mess with their minds (because the first one will probably have been elected long before that.)

          1. Morag

            I spoke to someone from North Lanarkshire who said that their priority was getting rid of as many Labour as possible and they were prepared to put up with the odd Tory to do that. This is a reasonable position. Labour have been the scourge of North Lanarkshire since I was a wee girl there in the 1960s, I know all about it.

            But over Scotland as a whole, if as many independence supporters can be persuaded to rank everything in sight higher than the Tories, we have a genuine chance of cutting the number of Tory councillors significantly enough to put Theresa May’s gas at a peep.

  5. Andrew Sinclair

    This is a good read Peter, especially the comments from those who have more experience with STV than we do.

    We need to get our heads well and truly round this and have a description of how to vote as a sticky post on as many Indy supporting blogs as we can.

  6. PRJ

    By voting for unionist parties at the lower end of the list you have an opportunity to discredit May’s attempt of making this an anti referendum campaign.

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